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Politics and cricket: stepping up to the crease on Sri Lanka

With protests demanding stern Indian action Sri Lanka continuing across the country, Delhi’s relationship with its unruly neighbour has come under intensifying criticism. India’s policy of meek diplomacy and appeasement has only fuelled Sri Lanka’s brazen defiance. In this context the Tamil Nadu state government has responded to the growing public mood by announcing a state wide ban on Sri Lankan players participating in the Indian Premier League. This step has highlighted an avenue for more concerted and co-ordinated international action.

A resolute sporting boycott can be utilised as a powerful tool to demonstrate that the international community will no longer tolerate Sri Lanka’s obstinate disrespect for human rights and international values. A clear, moral and principled message must be sent, that Sri Lanka cannot use its cricket team as ambassadors working to conceal the state’s on-going systematic violence against the Tamil people. It is only with such determined international action that calls for accountability and justice, become more than just empty rhetoric.

Sport and politics are inseparable. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu stated in his 2008 ‘Spirit of Cricket’ lecture, “politics impinges on sport as much as on any other aspect of life”. From controversies over race and debates over democracy, to all the other facets of politics, sport is constantly exposed to political bearings, invariably shaping it into a reflection of the environment in which it is fostered. The very nature of sport itself, based on core values such as fair play and respect for others, illustrate the depth with which it is intrinsically linked to international mores. These values are universal and resonate just as much on the international stage, as they do on the cricket ground, helping to maintain the integrity of sports. It was because of these fundamental tenets, that Tutu hailed the sports boycott of apartheid South Africa as embodying the ‘Spirit of Cricket’, acknowledging that it “played a crucial part in our liberation”.

Nowhere is this link between sports and politics more evident than in Sri Lanka. The government’s chauvinistic politics have infiltrated all aspects of life, including sports, at almost every level. From manipulating elections of the cricket board to a Member of Parliament being cynically called up to play for the team, and even last week’s announcement that a Minister’s son was to be selected to the squad, the overt politicisation of the sport in the cause of Sinhala chauvinism is undeniable.

Sri Lanka has furthermore actively used cricket as a vehicle of political legitimacy. The President has closely associated himself with the sport. The 2011 and 2012 World Cups were hosted at the self–named Mahinda Rajapaksa International Stadium in the President’s hometown. Rajapakse sat grinning from the stands as play continued; a miserable and sardonic attempt to normalise himself and his government. With the ‘ethnically pure’ war crimes-accused Sinhala military running the island’s cricket stadiums, the creeping sinister side of Sri Lankan cricket has become impossible to ignore.

Sport has a long history of men and women who have courageously stood up and taken stands against similar injustice. In Sri Lanka however, the cricketers have been eager ambassadors for the Sinhala regime. Whilst Tamils newspapers and MPs are singled out for attack and ordinary Tamils routinely subject to abduction, disappearance and detention without charge, Muralitharan - arguably Sri Lanka’s most famous cricket player - stated he “did not have any problems as a Tamil”. Kumar Sangakarra, the team’s silver-tongued star player, earlier praised the island’s war crimes-accused military and their “large, pivotal role” in the Tamil homeland, stating that Tamil civilians appreciated the army’s “guidance and understanding”. All while rampant militarisation of the North-East and rape and torture of Tamil civilians by Sri Lankan security forces continue to take place.

A sporting boycott is not about ethnic affinities, but a vehicle through which moral and principled stands can be taken. Blocking players from participating in sport on the basis of nationality or ethnicity is wrong. It is when players step forward as representatives of a murderous regime that continues to disregard international norms, that conscientious and bold steps must be taken. In Sri Lanka, the cricketers have openly become ambassadors of the state’s repression and have been willing participants in the politicisation of cricket. As a consequence, it is hardly surprising that their presence provokes political opposition from those committed to securing justice and accountability in Sri Lanka.

Given Colombo’s virulent rhetoric and on-going repression of Tamils, international sporting isolation would send a clear and distinct signal that this can no longer continue. Following on from the events of Geneva determined and decisive action must be taken. If not, no matter how many resolutions are passed, all calls for action will simply continue to ring hollow.